Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Successful Drug War Approach: Stop Selling Drugs & We will Help You Find Jobs, Housing, Food and Clothing

Crime dips after city tells dealers: Stop, or go to jail

Jennifer Brevorka and Janell Ross, Staff Writers

HIGH POINT - Two years ago, 12 suspected drug dealers and their families were summoned by the police to a meeting where they faced police officers, ministers, social workers and residents from High Point's West End neighborhood.

The group told the dealers: We're tired of seeing our neighborhood ravaged by dope. Stop selling drugs on our streets right now. If you quit dealing, we will help you find jobs, housing, food and clothing. If you continue, you will be arrested and vigorously prosecuted.

Almost overnight, the drug market vanished.

"I am not kidding, it was like a Western at high noon," said the Rev. Jim Summey, a Baptist minister. "As far as this lined-up-down-the-street thing -- guys selling drugs like candy, Johns picking up girls like they are a dime a dozen -- it was gone."

Senior citizens sat on front porches again. Kids walked to Bible school. Families returned to deserted parks. And two years later, crime of all kinds in the neighborhood remains 33 percent lower than before the meeting.

Raleigh police learned of High Point's success and want to use this approach to eliminate outdoor drug markets in the city. Officers and experts have invited community members to help with the initiative. Police are now laying the groundwork in a Southeast Raleigh neighborhood, preparing for their own version of the meeting.

"I am very excited about the possibilities," said City Councilman James West, who represents Southeast Raleigh. "This is a program that's proactive. It is aimed at dealing with the root causes, the causes of all of this crime as opposed to some of the symptoms."

Those familiar with the approach in High Point, a city of about 90,000 just southwest of Greensboro, say it differs from other anti-drug initiatives because residents become involved in creating solutions. Ultimately, supporters say, the program alters the way residents, police and drug dealers view one another and interact.

"It may all sound like some kind of urban fairy tale," Summey said of the West End's dramatic turnaround. "But it wouldn't do me or those communities [any good] to lie. This program has changed this community."

The peacefulness of the West End surprises some of the residents, business owners and police who know how it used to be.

They say streets once looked like a drive-in movie theater. Cars clogged intersections as addicts bought crack on corners. Young men milled about pay phones or stores. On Sundays, a human bazaar of prostitutes and Johns stood outside English Road Baptist Church, preventing parishioners from pulling into the parking lot.

"It was like a big city, going all the time," said Belinda Beasley, a West End resident for 14 years. "Prostitutes up and down the street. You could look straight at them, and they would jump in and out of cars."

The neighborhood of modest single-family houses and a few boardinghouses was once home to workers at the nearby mills that earned High Point the nickname "Furniture Capital of the World." Now most of those factories are shuttered, and the houses are filled with renters or old-timers.

In 2001, Summey and two other pastors formed West End Ministries. The group opened a boys and girls club, organized cleanup days and pushed police to get drug dealers off street corners.

Despite those efforts, drug selling and violence were common.

"There was a sense of intimidation," Summey said. "The neighborhood had pulled in their boards and closed the shades."

At a 2003 community meeting with police and their new chief, Jim Fealy, more than 100 residents laid into city officials, saying they wanted some peace. Fealy had driven the streets and seen the dealers. He agreed that things had to change.

The police soon returned with a plan. They were going to rid the streets of drug dealers but needed the community's help.

The program

To begin, High Point police met with David Kennedy, a former Harvard University researcher who now directs the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

Kennedy and the police developed a new approach: Citizens would meet with suspected drug dealers and offer them help finding another way to make a living. If those who had been warned continued to sell drugs, police would "pull every lever" available to punish offenders.

"The basics," Kennedy said, "are the frank talk with law enforcement and the community about drug issues and the role that each side plays in both perpetuating them and addressing them."

High Point police analyzed 911 calls and crime statistics to figure out which neighborhoods to target. Several qualified, but they settled on West End because of its strong community organizations. Officers investigated crack sales in West End and identified about 20 suspected dealers. Informants purchased drugs to build cases.

Next, detectives, along with a minister and a social worker, visited suspected dealers and their families at home. They delivered a letter from Chief Fealy inviting them to a meeting on May 18, 2004.

Fealy wrote that he wanted to show the dealers evidence of their criminal activity and give them a chance to stop selling before officers arrested them.

"Street level drug sales and violence have to stop," Fealy wrote. "We are giving you one chance to hear our message before we are forced to take action."

Officials also told these dealers they were lucky. Others, such as those with gun charges or convictions for violent crimes, did not get a letter. "There's some people out there that are so bad, we're not even going to give them a chance," Fealy said in an interview. "We're just going to arrest them and send them off."

Twelve suspected dealers were called to the first meeting. Nine showed up. By noon the next day, police arrested the missing three.

Dealers and their parents sat silent at tables as about a dozen community members told them they would get a second chance. People wanted to help them, but only if they stopped peddling dope.

Then the group entered a room with photos on the walls showing crack houses where the dealers worked. On a table sat binders with an unsigned arrest warrant inside each one.

High Point police, ATF agents, federal drug agents, state police, the Guilford County district attorney and an assistant U.S. attorney filled the room. They thanked the suspected dealers for coming and explained that they were considered "special."

If they were caught selling or possessing drugs again, they would be arrested and prosecuted. And High Point police wouldn't be the only enforcers; federal agents, state investigators and neighboring police departments would help.

Stuart Albright, then the Guilford County district attorney, told the group that if they were arrested again for selling dope, there would be no plea deals.

"I can promise you, with the 7,000 felonies ... we prosecute in Guilford County, I can't remember every single name," Albright said. "But I can remember y'all's names. I've got every one of y'all on the list."

Enforcement picks up

Soon, police intensified patrols of the West End. Officers cracked down on prostitutes and secured search warrants for suspected crack dens.

When police arrested a dealer, they blanketed the neighborhood with fliers. One side explained the initiative and how dealers could get help; the other had a photo of the suspect and the penalties he faced.

"The community and the High Point Police Department will not tolerate drug dealing ...," one flier read. "If you are dealing, STOP."

Arrests in the area declined while calls to 911 increased. Police took that as a sign that people felt confident enough to call when things went wrong. The violent crime rate citywide dropped, too, about 8 percent between 2004 and 2005, according to statistics from the State Bureau of Investigation.

Undercover informants could no longer buy crack in the West End, police said, and word about the initiative spread quickly on the streets.

In 2005, police took the program to a second neighborhood, Daniel Brooks, and invited nine drug dealers to the meeting. Every one showed up.

As the initiative took hold, crime rates dropped and Daniel Brooks residents reached out to police.

"I would like to say thank you all for the wonderful job that you all are doing around the Daniel Brooks area and beyond," a handwritten note to police reads. "I'm praying for you all."

In June, police turned to the Southside area and invited 20 people to the meeting. By then, the program was well-known: When one dealer heard that officers were searching for him, he stopped by the police station and asked for his copy of the letter, police said.

The Southside neighborhood has changed, but not as dramatically as West End.

On a recent weekday, shortly before noon, undercover officers drove the streets, citing prostitutes, many of whom had just tried to earn a quick $20 so they could score some crack. Gaggles of young men who dealt drugs have vanished from parks, though occasionally a group is still seen sitting on a porch.

Summey, the West End minister, said his neighborhood went through a similar transition.

Despite initial doubts, Southside resident Willie Mills says she can see progress. Drug dealers have vanished from her block, and prostitutes are less common.

"I guess I knew things were changing when I saw some of my neighbors the other day," Mills said. "Just for exercise, they took a little walk around the block."

The goal: Cut crime

Though the program has improved neighborhoods, the effect on dealers is less certain. One of the nine dealers who came to the West End meeting pursued the programs offered and got a job. Of the 29 who attended meetings for the second and third neighborhoods, nine contacted the program for help with jobs.

On the other hand, police say, only four of the 38 suspects who attended meetings have been arrested on drug charges.

Police say they don't think all dealers have quit the business; they just aren't doing it in the open, where it poisons neighborhoods and leads to other kinds of crime.

Although the program offers dealers a chance at redemption, the people running the program say its success can't be measured by whether drug dealers get jobs.

"This is not about drugs, it's really not," Chief Fealy said. "Our intent is to stop the violence that's associated with open-air drug markets."

In 2003, during a community meeting, West End residents told police they were scared. Three young men had broken into a home at night and, botching an attempted robbery, killed a man as he lay in bed.

A year later, after the crackdown on drug dealing, police said, the biggest complaints were about kids skipping class and smoking cigarettes behind buildings.

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